Please forgive the headline — I couldn’t resist, but in all honesty, there are some similarities between the subject of this post and Clark Kent’s alter-ego. You see, the skate is to the world of fish what the nerdy-looking Kent is to the Daily Planet —a journeyman, overlooked and underrated by those who should know better, and under whose dowdy exterior, there beats the heart of a superhero. Of course, this is where the similarities end because neither are skate found on Krypton nor was Superman a noted contributor to delicious and easy-to-prepare dinners, so I will have to henceforth dispense with the erstwhile theme of this post.
Nonetheless, the skate and its delicious wings are definitely worth appreciating. A comparative rarity on menus this side of the Atlantic, skate wing is fairly common in French bistrots and used to be a regular on the menus of fish restaurants across the UK, but the common and white skates are now critically endangered in UK waters and are officially listed by the Marine Conservation Society as “fish to avoid”. In the Americas, almost the reverse is true, at least for the time being, as meatier fish tend to dominate fish menus at the expense of the more delicate white fish, the Pacific coast from Mexico to Alaska is full of the big (or giant – it can grow up to 8 feet in wingspan!) and longnose skates which make for some fine dining.
Skates are a cartilaginous fish in the ray family (you know, stingrays, manta rays, etc.) which is linked comparatively closely (in evolutionary terms) with the shark family, meaning that they are relatively slow breeding and give birth to live young, and are therefore more susceptible to overfishing than the more prolific egg-producing gill fish.
But don’t let this put you off trying skate. Just make sure to ask your fishmonger where the skate he’s selling comes from, and if he doesn’t know, make him find out for you. All good butchers know the provenance of their meats, so why should fishmongers not be as knowledgeable about their wares?
When purchasing skate, make sure it’s fresh and without any ammoniacal odor, as for some reason I could find no explanation for they tend to go off faster than normal white fish. Also, you should ask your fishmonger to remove the “bones” from the skate for you. This makes it easier to cook and eat because the wings contain a fan of bones that can otherwise be a chore to remove with a knife and fork.
The classic preparation is pan-fried au beurre noisette, or with a brown butter and caper sauce, which adds richness and acid to what is basically a flaky white fish, but because for us a fish meal tends to be a cathartic measure (albeit an enjoyable one) designed to make us feel healthier, we combined our pan-fried skate wing with a salad of finely-sliced fennel, fennel tops and tomato, and some steamed asparagus with a simple vinaigrette. However, feel free to also enjoy it in the typical manner as a little fat not only helps the fish remain moist, it brings out the best flavors of the delicate skate flesh.
Pan-Fried Skate Wing with Fennel & Tomato Salad (serves 2)
1 whole skate, bones removed (8-10oz, uncooked)
1cup regular (not extra virgin) olive oil, or canola/vegetable oil
1 fennel bulb, sliced finely. Reserve fennel tops and chop finely also.
1 large tomato, diced
1/2 fresh corn cob, boiled and kernels removed
3tbsp good olive oil
1tbsp lemon juice
1tsp smooth dijon mustard
3tbsp plain flour
salt & white pepper to taste
Put fennel (including tops), tomato and corn into a non-reactive bowl and mix well with vinaigrette. Allow to sit and steep for at least 30minutes or as long as overnight.
Heat oil in a frying pan to medium-high, around 350F.
Dust skate with flour and season with salt. Pat off excess and gently lay in the hot oil until nicely browned and crisp all over (2-3mins per side, approx.)
Remove fish to a plate and gently pat dry with paper towels. Dress with the fennel salad and add an extra splash of olive oil to moisten the whole thing a bit, then serve.
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